Thursday, 25 May 2017

Wooden Headphones

... reckless behaviour affecting the conservation of a Schedule 1 protected species

During the Pacific campaigns of World War II, native peoples on many small islands (now generally called Melanesia) came into contact with the products of Japanese, and then Western, technological culture for the first time. Aircraft and ships brought stockpiles of military support supplies – tinned food, construction material, tents and clothing - to the islands, which the inhabitants referred to as “Cargo” - the pidgin word for trade goods. Then, as mysteriously as they had arrived, the service personnel accompanying this logistic effort vanished again, as the fortune of war ebbed and flowed across the region.

The islanders weren't stupid. They knew the value of the goods, but their own culture had no terms of reference to explain how or why all this stuff had been produced and delivered. The Ancestral Spirits had obviously meant the Cargo for them – and if some had arrived, there must be more on the way...

They had observed the baffling rituals performed by the visitors, rituals which preceded the arrival of Cargo. Soldiers marched up and down on the beaches. Others lit fires in straight parallel lines, and then spoke while wearing curious headdresses connected to grey boxes. The islanders reasoned, logically, that if they performed these same rituals correctly, more Cargo would be sent to them.  THAT was how the world of the Spirits had always operated, was it not? 

So they marched up and down. They built “control towers” from bamboo, and carved wooden headphones to use in them. They lit the landing fires, and waited... But, far away, WWII had ended and the aeroplanes never returned. These strange versions of religion persisted in the South Pacific for many years, and anthropologists coined a general term for them..
“Cargo Cults”

In certain areas of Wales, and also in the Scottish borders, some misguided people have been running around the countryside, putting up platform poles for “osprey nests”. The rationale behind this seems plain enough: in the past, ospreys have nested on artificial platforms, therefore many more platforms means many more ospreys will come. Simple, innit?

Except that it's not that simple at all.

We now know that population, dispersal, and nesting dynamics in a recovering osprey population are complicated and have a pattern of development that must be taken into account by any responsible conservation plan. Low population density in a given area means that male birds defend very large nesting territories. Young birds returning to these areas disperse widely, often having to cover hundreds of kilometres in their search for a mate and a nest.

As (and if) the recovery proceeds normally, defended territories become gradually smaller, pre-nuptial dispersal covers shorter ranges, and more local nest sites are taken up. BUT it can take several generations of birds for these changes to happen, and ill-considered attempts to manipulate them cause problems: polygynous nesting being only one of these.

Unplanned platform deployment isn't conservation at all – it's Cargo Cult Ecology.

These hobbyist platform-builders do not understand the underlying processes in a recovering osprey population. But unlike the rather smarter south-sea islanders, they seem to have little or no interest in finding out the real facts, preferring just to perform their Ritual of Poles repeatedly in the superstitious hope that ospreys will magically appear.

The only things missing are the wooden headphones.

Source material:

Cargo Cult: A Melanesian Type-response to Culture Contact” T. Schwartz, UCSD, 1968
A Review of Thirty-five Years of Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) Nesting Data in Rhode Island” E.S. Walsh, University of Rhode Island, (2013)
The demography of a newly established Osprey Pandion haliaetus population in France” Wahl, Barbraud (2016) doi: 10.1111/ibi.12114
Distribution pattern of an expanding Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) population in a changing environment” Bai, ML., Schmidt, D., Gottschalk, E. et al. J Ornithol (2009) 150: 255. doi:10.1007/s10336-008-0345-3
Density dependence in a recovering osprey population: demographic and behavioural processes” Bretagbolle V, Mougeot F, Thibault J-C, (2008) doi:10.1111/j.1365-2656.2008.01418.x

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